From Plumber to Author, Still Just Telling Stories

by Steve Bernstein

All my adult life, I have been a storyteller. Not an ‘official’ storyteller, but through my work as a teacher and advocate. I tell stories as a way to engage teens–teens who are struggling and at significant risk, teens who have found their way to me in search of mentoring, learning and compassion. I wasn’t much older than these teens when I started this work, or I rather I should say, this spiritual practice. My work with teens has taken place in everything from a church basement to a classroom to a construction site to a twelve-step meeting, to a rehab hospital, and even in prisons.  I had stories to share, they followed suit and shared theirs with me. Among all the advocacy, activist and teaching techniques I’ve employed, sharing stories is the most powerful. The stories healed us and still do.

Eight years ago, I turned sixty. My professional career as a plumber ended and I found myself with time to explore. Around that time, I saw this tiny little three-line classified ad in the back of the paper that said something like: Join our writing group. It meets weekly. Write your story. I cut it out, put it on my freezer door with a magnet and there it stayed for about a month. During that month, I kept thinking about the ad. I asked myself: Is it time to get these stories out of your head and put them down on paper? Why would I do that? I wondered. Well, they’re in my head, my head is bursting, I got so much to say, I got so much to write about. Is it time? I kept talking myself out of it. True, I knew I had good stories to tell about growing up in the Bronx, but I didn’t know how to write. I had never written much before, so the ad stayed on the freezer door. And then I realized, well, that’s what this group is for; so I called the number. Dori got back to me and said it would be about a month before the next group started. No problem: I had been with my stories my whole life, I could wait another month.

I started writing in this lovely studio in Florence MA, with a lovely group of folks in the same kind of place I was at–wanting to write, tell their stories get them down into the written word.

I kept going and going and going, I’m still going today. That first year, I just got the stories out of my head. My fellow writers encouraged me, seemed genuinely interested and intrigued. Dori gave me such astute and kind feedback as a facilitator, and by the time year two came around, she helped me understand that I was moving into the realm of speaking to an audience–a readership: that was the turning point when I realized I had book in me. Year two, I wrote the bones of the book, got into the Writers in Progress Manuscript Group, and with the help of my colleagues produced a manuscript draft. Dori provided feedback and editing and gave me the impetus to keep moving forward. Then two very dear friends who know me better than anyone–what Steven King calls “favorite readers”–helped me get the book in shape for self-publishing. I learned some Amazon formatting, got it up on their site, and the four and five star reviews poured in. I won’t lie to you: there were a couple of real stinkers too. For the most part, I had very little interest in mainstream publishing, especially after a couple of bad experiences with agents. And even more important, I just don’t like rejection. So, Amazon was great.

Stories From the Stoop lived on Amazon for about a year, and then one day I got an email. Right away, I got a sense of it being legit. It came from a an intelligent and knowledgeable young woman representing a well-known publisher. No big push. Not asking for money. It got my attention, so I looked them up and sure enough, top shelf. I spoke with her and she told me that her boss really liked my book and would like to talk to me about publishing it. She invited me to their offices on west thirty sixth street in NYC. I took the train down. I brought a tray of homemade Linzer cookies that my girlfriend insisted on. Most of them made it to the meeting. Well, the cookies must have worked, because I walked out with a contract and the promise of a good faith check if I decided to sign up. I know it’s much more than the cookies. I met the publisher, and he took the book in one hand a cookie in the other and said “I love this book, I want it in my house.” He then proceeded to tell me all about his Manhattan neighborhoods growing up, the games they played in the street, the friends he grew up with. A real New Yorker. Nice guy. It felt like family that day. And when it feels like family, I know it’s real. Then The Corona virus hit.

I signed the contract, cashed the check and waited. And waited. And waited some more–about two and a half years. Then they got the ball rolling again and now, a year later, my book is out. It’s beautiful. During Covid, I kept writing. I keep on writing today. I go to Dori’s weekly Jumpstart groups, meet with lovely writers

In the group, we encourage each other. We listen to each other. We share our stories. Now I’m working on book number two. I think it will be a doozy. My students and I still share our stories. That will never change.

Join us today at 4:30 for Steve’s virtual book launch and Q & A!  Email for the link.